This is it folks, the last Bandcamp Friday of the year! Rather than looking back on all the albums I’ve covered for Folk Alley this year, I thought it would be fun to look ahead to new roots music albums coming in 2022. There’s some great music that you can either pre-order now, or note down in your calendars. Don’t forget to support artists this final Bandcamp Friday! It’s not clear if Bandcamp will keep Bandcamp Fridays going into 2022, but it’s surely been a winning way to help artists in dire times.
It’s been years since Aoife O’Donovan led neo-trad stringband Crooked Still, but I still can’t shake that powerful, beautiful voice of hers. Over the years she’s pushed harder as a songwriter, as a bandleader, moving from ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ and ‘Live from Here’ stints to her own tours. With her new album, Age of Apathy, she’s surely arrived as a markedly poetic songwriter and a careful songcrafter. Her songs are complex, twisting constantly, shifting through surprising chord changes and progressions. There are folk elements surely, lots of acoustic instruments, a tinge of Celtic song in her voice from growing up with a much respected Irish broadcaster for a father. But “Prodigal Daughter” has to be a master class on how to build a compelling song. She shifts through so many moods and ideas in this song, keeping everything cohesive and concise. I think Age of Apathy is the closest she’s coming to tapping some of that Joni Mitchell alchemy that all songwriters strive towards. Fitting that the theme of the album is our shared desire to stay present in a world spinning off its access, surrounded by human apathy and fear. This album may not be the cure for our sickness, but it’ll certainly help.
A new album from North Carolina folk singer and folklorist Jake Xerxes Fussell is always cause for celebration! Fussell’s a deep diver when it comes to folk songs, always seeming to pull up lost gems from the depths. Opening song “Love Farewell” is a new one to me, though Fussell tracks other recordings or written records of the song from an 1883 book to a 1988 album of Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin. The lyrics hint at endings, but Fussell’s voice retains a kind of hope that’s warming. “Washington” takes lyrics from a hooked rug made in Virginia in 1890, surely one of the most unusual ways to make up a song. “Carriebelle” from Lomax’s field recordings of the Georgia Sea Island Singers is another new one to me, while “Breast of Glass” is a name I’d never heard attached to the old ballad “Foreign Lander.” But even on songs that are familiar, like “Rolling Mills Are Burning Down” or Fussell’s languid version of “The Golden Willow Tree”, his versions of the songs sound sui generis. With floating brass on the horizon, Fussell turns in singular renditions of some of these great songs, buoyed by his own eclectic musicianship. Maybe in another life Jake Xerxes Fussel could have been the next Alan Lomax, but here we’ll take him as the eminent folk singer that he is.
Rayna Gellert’s musical talent just isn’t fair. She’s easily one of the best old-time fiddlers in the world, a tunehunter whose arrangements of tunes she’s uncovered become de rigueur at square dances around the country. She’s also one of the best folk singers and songwriters, an unheralded fact that she’s borne out through the absolutely excellent album of original songs, Old Light, from 2012. She’s been collaborating a lot with underground country singer and label owner Kieran Kane and the two make an unlikely musical couple. Kane comes from the bigtime country world, having been signed to Columbia Records in the 80s with his duo The O’Kanes. But he shares Gellert’s reverence for the old mountain traditions, and together the two have found an interesting common ground that’s one part Woody Guthrie-esque ruminations on the modern world and one part transcendent stringband roots. The album was made on a lake in the Adirondacks following a productive summer that saw both of them working on Martin Scorcese’s star-studded upcoming film, Killers of the Flower Moon. New songs, old songs, fiddle tunes, it’s all tossed together here in an overarching quest to find an authentic expression from two traditional masters brought together. The album’s a delight!
Calypso made it big in the US way back in the 1950s with Harry Belafonte; I’m sure most folks have heard “Rum and Coca-Cola.” It’s breezy island music, full of horns and lyrics in a thick Trinidadian accent. But I’m afraid that Americans may have missed the real meaning of calypso. This is street music, music made by the oppressed to challenge the oppressor. Lyrics speak to and challenge egregious power structures and serve as a kind of chronicle of the moment. “Rum and Coca-Cola” sounds like the perfect island song for drinking, but it’s actually a brutal takedown of American imperialism, focusing on prostitution and American GIs. There aren’t that many calypsonians left these days (shout out to The Mighty Sparrow and Calypso Rose though, both of whom released recent albums), but I pin all my hopes for this rich tradition on Toronto’s Kobo Town, led by Trinidadian artist Drew Gonsalves. Gonsalves truly understands the speak-truth-to-power origins of calypso and his songs retain the clever subversion of the idiom. His new album, Carnival of Ghosts, seems a bit less political than previous albums, I think he’s focusing more on the human condition. If that’s the case, he’s a canny observer of humanity, and a suspicious consumer of modern culture (“The Hidden Hand” is a look at the puppeteers pulling the strings today). If you’re not familiar with how hard calypso can hit, check out Kobo Town for sure.
It’s been wonderful to see North African Tuareg music breaking into the mainstream over the past decade, first with Tinariwen, then with Bombino, Mdou Moctar, and now Algerian Tuareg band Imarhan. This band’s actually been around since back in 2006 and their new album, Aboogi, is their third with German label City Slang. The Tuareg are a large ethnic group of often nomadic peoples moving throughout the Saharan desert with communities in Northern Mali, Niger, Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Libya. Hailing from Tamanrasset in Southern Algeria, Imarhan built their recording studio from the ground up in order to record their new album, an ode to the continuation of Tuareg culture across countries. This great quote from bandleader Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane, aka Sadam sums up this album’s ties to their home: “Aboogi reflects the colors of Tamanrasset, what we experience in everyday life. We give space to the wind and the natural energies, to the sun and the sand. We want to express their colors through music.” Tuareg guitar music too often gets lumped into the electrified desert blues, so it’s nice that Imarhan shows some more acoustic sides to the music. While Aboogi isn’t as psychedelic feeling as other bands, it’s still got that rolling, dusty trance feel to it that makes Tuareg guitar so powerfully compelling.
Swiss metal artist Zeal & Ardor had one of the most powerful and incendiary albums of recent time with 2017’s Devil Is Fine. He was writing what sounded like Lomax field recordings of chain gang hymns, but from a Satanist perspective, a blistering indictment of the racism he’d experienced in music. Haunting, terrifying, disturbing, the songs seemed born of fire, infused with fury. If you’re interested in gospel or blues music and missed this album because it didn’t come up in your world, do a u-turn right NOW and check it out. There’s nothing else like it and it should have heralded a sea change in folk music. Metal and folk have gone hand in hand from the beginning, certainly artists like Led Zeppelin pioneered this way early on, and folk metal as a genre (also neo folk or black metal or Cascadian blackened folk or any number of other names) goes back well into the 90s. Some of the best pagan folk music being made now comes from metal communities (check out Blackbird Raum, Sangre de Muerdago, Panopticon), and Zeal & Ardor towers over everyone with his unique vision. I’ve been trying to get my hands on the full album, but just listening to “Bow”, you can hear the elements of what he describes as blues, gospel, and soul in his music, allied with the rage of hundreds of year of injustice (“Bow down to the American way” he screams over the crushing guitars, behind the soul harmonies).
I’ve been a fan of Canadian songwriter Raine Hamilton for quite a while now, after catching her first at one of the folk music conferences that Canadian artists are known to frequent. She’s a great songwriter, crafting well-built songs around universal feelings. She’s also a classical violinist with a deep background in classical music, so usually her albums feature lovely chamber folk arrangements. Hamilton’s new album Brave Land is a concept album about mountains, something that seemed foreign to her at first encounter having grown up on the flatlands of the Canadian prairie. It’s an album fascinated but the natural world, looking to relate that to our own selves. In “Believer,” she sings “There’s a path I walked, through the forest green/ There’s a way I know to walk in-between/In-between the branches, in-between the lines.” The album hews far from the usual singer-songwriter faire. “Dominae Sanctae” is a delightful Latin incantation, and “Dreamer” is a classical instrumental. Brave Land is an intriguing statement from a uniquely Canadian folk artist.
Coming in March 2022, blues label and nonprofit Music Maker this live album of blues guitarist Beverly “Guitar” Watkins cooks. Watkins shared stages with everyone from James Brown to Ray Charles, even recorded with John Lennon, but she never got the due she deserved in America. In France, however, she was revered, and this fiery live set with full band from Paris in 2012 shows it.
The great roots musician Leyla McCalla just announced that she’s signing to ANTI- Records for an album coming mid-2022. She just released the first track from the album, the absolutely blistering “Fort Dimanche,” a song named for the notorious Port-au-Prince prison and torture center for former dictator François Duvalier in the 50s and 60s. It’s a prison “without conscience” she sings in Haitian Creole, paired with haunting field recordings. This album is one to watch!
It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but Patrick Haggerty, gay country pioneer (he cut the first gay country album back in 1973, the visceral and deeply beautiful Lavender Country), has a sequel coming in early 2022 on Don Giovanni Records. Blackberry Rose is a fresh-faced look at Haggerty’s life of activism and struggle against the capitalist machine and a fascinating document of an artist in later years.
Blues great Keb’ Mo’ has a new album coming January 21, 2022 on Rounder Records and it’s a star-studded affair featuring appearances from Darius Rucker, Old Crow Medicine Show, and actress Kristin Chenoweth.
Americana favorites Jamestown Revival’s new album is their first made without electric guitars, choosing to focus more on fine picking and beautiful singing. It works, and it’s a delight.
I’ve been a fan of golden-voiced country and Americana singer Erin Rae for a few years now, so was happy to see she has a new album coming Feb 4. Produced by Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty), the album sounds like it was cut in a smoky, velvet covered Nashville bar, but Rae’s channeling influences as interesting as British psych folkies like Pete Dello and Kevin Ayers.